A coastal city situated along the Pacific Ocean coastline, Encinitas, California, is known for its beautiful beaches, vibrant art scene, and laid-back, surf-centric lifestyle. It’s also renowned as the “Flower Capital of the World” for its bounty of beautiful nurseries and gardens. There are so many wonderful things to do in Encinitas that you could fill several days without getting bored.
Located about 25 miles north of downtown San Diego between Solana Beach and Carlsbad, this North County destination has consistently been named one of the world’s best surf towns. Those who visit this Southern California gem are treated to a trip back in time to the Highway 101 beach culture that was so popular in the mid-1900s.
Best Things To Do In Encinitas, CA
From a local’s perspective, here are some recommendations on where to stay, play, and catch a wave in the hippiest beach city on the San Diego coastline.
Find the Best Encinitas Beaches
Since Encinitas offers six miles of inviting sand, it’s only fair that we start with its amazing beaches when we talk about the things to do in this delightful coastal town.
A favorite for surfing, Swami’s was immortalized in the Beach Boys famously popular song “Surfin’ USA” as well as surf movies and magazines. The famous ‘take a wave’ destination located at the south end of Encinitas features a steep bluff-top park and a long stairway descending down to the beach.
If you’re into catching a wave, you’ll love Swami’s. Its firm sand makes it ideal for beach walking, and when the tide isn’t high you can make it all the way to Carlsbad’s San Elijo State Beach. If you’re not into surfing, this is place to watch the incredible athletes hanging ten into the impact zone. And if you’re into it, Swami’s has one of the county’s best tide pool areas.
Moonlight State Beach
This lovely stretch of sand is popular for its picnic facilities, concessions, volleyball courts, lifeguard presence, and excellent waves for boogie boarding or surfing.
As Encinitas’ main central beach, it’s ideal for families, especially because the beach slope is gradual which makes playing in the surf safe a lot of fun.
If you didn’t bring your own, next to the concession stand, you’ll find a rental shop for beach chairs, umbrellas, surfboards, boogie boards and beach towels. And it’s one of San Diego County’s beaches that allows bonfires, and the perfect place to catch a spectacular sunset.
Also known as Leucadia State Beach, this stretch of sand does not have facilities, but it’s one of North County’s hidden treasures. Tucked below a bluff, it’s a popular place for surfers and sunbathers wanting a bit more privacy.
To access the beach, you’ll need to take a narrow trail with three switchbacks starting from the edge of the parking lot on Neptune Avenue between Jasper and West Leucadia Boulevard. But watch the tide schedule, since high tide limits access.
A narrow strip of sand also below Encinitas’ high bluffs, Grand Beach at high tide doesn’t provide much exposed real estate, but when the tide is just right, the beach’s firm sand makes it ideal for beachcombing.
Surfers and beach goers need to take a steep wooden stairway down to the beach from the parking lot at the north end of Neptune Avenue near Grandview Street. Again, the beach has no facilities but it’s a lovely seashore escape.
Take a Surf Lesson
For those who want to give surfing a try or up their game, Encinitas is home to several surf schools that offer a range of lessons from professionally certified surf instructors that include all equipment along with wetsuits. Lessons are tailored to the age, abilities, and goals of each surfer.
A surfer friend from North County was good enough to recommend some of her favorites.
Encinitas Surf Lessons
Address: D Street Beach, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 456-5036
This now female-owned company offers both group and private lessons each lasting 90 minutes. Group lessons feature a 1-instructor-to-4-student ratio.
Surfers can select between three packages of either three, six or nine lessons and surf camps are also available for booking.
Leucadia Surf School
Address: 400 B. Street, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 635-7873
Owner Gerry Kantor, a native San Diegan, body surfed as a kid in the 1950s and started surfing in the early 60s.
Surf lessons here are provided eight days a week on Moonlight Beach, along with a Saturday adult and kid combined group lesson.
Private and group sessions are available with either a 2-1 or 4-1 student to instructor ratio. Equipment is included, however there is an additional fee for wetsuit rental.
Hike San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center
Address: 2710 Manchester Avenue, Cardiff-by-the Sea
Phone (for reservations):(858) 565-3600
One of San Diego’s largest wetlands at almost 1,000 acres, the San Elijo Lagoon is a nature-lovers paradise. The shallow-water estuary was created by the mergence of the Escondido and La Orilla Creeks and the Pacific Ocean.
The picturesque area offers seven miles of easy-to-moderate trails, including the more strenuous Annie’s Canyon Trail surrounded by coastal strand, salt and freshwater-brackish marshes, riparian and coastal sage scrub, and more. But it’s also an ideal setting for birders, painters and photographers.
Discover Downtown Encinitas
Rich in history and character, Encinitas is the quintessential Surf City with a traditional Main Street (the old Highway 101). Locals will tell you it’s also one of the most dog-friendly places on Earth. Dogs are not only welcome in doggie parks and a few beaches in the area, but most retail stores and the patios of most restaurants are more than happy to welcome your furry friend.
Don’t miss visiting the swank women’s clothing boutiques and quirky jewelry stores, along with a mix of eclectic art galleries in town. To enjoy the best artworks, head to Art N Soul, which champions local artists and works with many non-profit organizations.
Visit the San Diego Botanic Garden
Address: 230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 436-3036
This should definitely be on your to-do list as this 37-acre garden with four miles of meandering trails that lead through and to lovely ocean views. The garden is home to over 5,000 plant species from habitats around the world, including numerous rare and endangered species.
Twenty-nine uniquely themed sections represent the desert, tropical rainforest, subtropical fruit and more, including the West Coast’s largest children’s garden and the nation’s largest public bamboo collection. Science and conservation are also at the forefront of the institution’s objectives, both within the Garden itself and outside habitats.
Visit the Encinitas Historical Society
Address: 390 W. F Street, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 942-9066
If you’re into history, you’ll love this place.
Housed in a picturesque white clapboard cottage, the building with original wooden floors is now the home of the historical society. It was the town’s only one-room schoolhouse in 1883 with only eight students in attendance.
Visitors will find photographs, exhibits and well-informed docents who provide more in-depth information about the school and the town’s history. And the museum is free to guests.
See the Surfing Madonna
When artist Mark Patterson created the 10 x 10-foot vibrant mosaic of a Surfing Madonna in 2011, it was considered controversial. Especially when it was illegally installed under the rail bridge on one of Encinitas’ busiest streets. You have to love California!
Some appreciated the Mexican heritage depictions. Others found it sacrilegious that the Virgin of Guadalupe is on a surfboard riding a wave. Labeled as graffiti, the city fined the artist and ordered it removed.
But the community rallied to the artist’s defense and inspired the non-profit Surfing Madonna Oceans Project, raising thousands of dollars and drawing worldwide attention in support of saving the ocean.
Eventually, it was removed from the rail bridge but can still be enjoyed on Leucadia Pizzeria’s back wall facing Encinitas Boulevard.
Browse the Leucadia Farmer’s Market
Address: 185 Union Street, Encinitas
Phone: (858) 272-7054
If you’ve never visited the Leucadia Farmer’s Market, you should. Located at the Paul Ecke Central School field, the market, which opened in 2005, runs every Sunday from 10 am to 2 pm with the exception of Easter Sunday.
Over 90 booths feature local organic produce, specialty foods, baked goods, flowers and handicrafts.
The market includes a food court selling breakfast and lunch with a covered seated eating area. In addition, there’s a large children’s playground, a balloon artist, face painter and live entertainment. It’s really a fun event.
Travel Through History at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum
Address: 450 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 632-9711
This charming museum housed at Encinitas’ Heritage Ranch was founded in 1988 to collect, preserve and showcase the significant history of the San Diego River areas including Encinitas and nearby Leucadia, Olivenhain, Cardiff, Solana Beach, Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe.
Photos, displays, preserved artifacts and records tell stories spanning the history of the region from Native American times through the 1960s. On site, visitors will find the Main Museum building, Native American Ki’icha or E’waa, the 1885 Teten house, the General Store, Ecke Ranch Bunk House and their latest addition, Main Street Building.
Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens
Address: 215 W. K Street, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 753-1811
It’s impossible to be in Encinitas and not notice the golden-domed lotus towers along South Coast Highway 101 that almost appear transplanted from Asia.
That’s because the entire site was designed by Indian monk, yogi, and guru Paramahansa Yogananda in 1948. He envisioned this as a world brotherhood center—where people from all over the globe could come to learn the ideals of self-realization through meditation.
A visit to the Meditation Gardens is a must. Filled with a myriad of colorful plants, koi ponds and stunning ocean views, the gardens provide private nooks for praying, meditating or just taking in the serene surroundings.
Cal Pacific Orchid Farm
Address: 1122 Orpheus Avenue, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 436-0317
If you love orchids, you’ll absolutely adore this family-owned orchid farm that includes a 36,000-square-foot greenhouse filled with hundreds of dazzling orchids from all around the world.
The Aladdin’s Cave of Orchids features hundreds of species along with a fascinating array of hybrid orchids, some almost 100 years old. Knowledgeable staff offer suggestions about raising orchids and their unique care. Bouquets and custom arrangements are available for purchase.
See the Cardiff Kook
Originally named the “Magic Carpet Ride,” this bronze statue depicting a surfing boy elicited an impressive amount of outrage when it was unveiled in 2007 on Chesterfield Drive and South Coast Highway 101.
Some purists claimed the boy looked like a ‘wannabe’ surfer, that his hands and stance were all wrong, making it offensive as it didn’t reflect a cool Southern California surfer catching the waves in proper form.
However, time and tolerance helped change the mockery into a form of health awareness and local pride. He now has an annual run named after him, calendars and merchandise created in his honor, and has been dressed in pink in honor of Breast Cancer awareness. He has been adorned as characters from Zorro to Alice in Wonderland and even hovered over by a huge paper mâché shark.
Catch a Flick at La Paloma Theatre
Address: 471 S. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 436-7469
Since 1928, Encinitas’ original hometown theatre and San Diego’s oldest has entertained patrons with many great shows.
Though talking pictures premiered in 1927, it took a while for these films to get parceled out around the country. As a result, La Paloma sported a beautiful pipe organ to accompany its silent films, preceded by a vaudeville stage act. Today, theatergoers can watch movies surrounded by history and charming historical ambiance.
Check out the Foodie Scene in Encinitas
Encinitas is chock-a-block full of places to dine. Options range from fish shops, cafes, and pizzerias to Mexican, fusions of Mediterranean and Latin American cuisine, French bakeries, Italian trattorias, and organic farm-to-table eateries. Many have outdoor patios for enjoying the views and our beautiful, picture-perfect San Diego weather.
Other restaurants feature Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, Peruvian, and Asian choices, and much more.
The bottom line is you’ll find fresh seafood, creative dishes, and lots of places to curb those hunger pangs after all your local exploration.
How to Get to Encinitas
The most scenic way to get to Encinitas is by driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, aka the 101 Freeway. It leads you through all the cute beach towns along the coast and is absolutely stunning. If you want to get there quickly, you can also go up the 5 Freeway. Definitely check Google Maps before you go and see what the traffic is like, though.
Aside from driving, the easiest way to get to Encinitas is to take the Coaster from San Diego. This is a commuter train, and the ride only costs you $6.50 one-way or $13 return.
If you are flying into either San Diego International Airport or John Wayne Airport in Orange County, about 61 miles away, are the most popular options. The closest (and smallest) Airport is Palomar Airport. John Wayne and Palomar are good choices for those who prefer flying into a smaller airport that’s easy to get in and out of.
Encinitas is also accessible by train with an Amtrak stop at Carlsbad, just three miles south of Encinitas.
Where to Stay in Encinitas: Hotels
Though Encinitas is a charming, quintessential relatively small beach town, visitors have their choices of cool-vibe places to hang their hats at the end of the day.
The Encinitian Hotel & Suites
Address: 85 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 942-7455
If you’re looking for a hotel stay, this 96-room Mediterranean-inspired property offers jaw-dropping views of Moonlight Beach and suites that include kitchenettes, so your vacation can become a staycation if you wish. Breakfast is included and guests can enjoy the venue’s outdoor pool and spa tub.
Moonlight Beach Motel
Address: 233 2nd Street, Encinitas
Phone: (760) 753-0623
This 24-room boutique property has been family-owned and operated since 1976 and has the closest proximity to the ocean. It’s also within walking distance to local shops and restaurants. Rooms and suites all have a mini kitchen and some offer full kitchenettes. Guests can choose from rooms with private balconies with ocean or garden patio views.
Where to Stay in Encinitas: Vacation Rentals
If you’re looking for a true home-away-from-home experience, a vacation rental may be your ideal choice.
Luxury Tuscan Guest Unit
Located in the heart of Encinitas, this tastefully appointed guest suite is attached to a multimillion-dollar home. The vacation rental that’s just a two-minute walk to Moonstone Beach has its own private entry and features 10-foot ceilings, granite countertops and travertine tile throughout. The one-bedroom, one-bath property can sleep three with a queen bed and a futon.
Historic Sea Cottages by the Sea
How about a real throwback to those earlier San Diego fun-in-the-sun beach days?
This 1950s Mint & Sea cottage near Moonlight Beach has been completely renovated, maintaining its historic character and charm. The one-bedroom, one-bath property is part of a two-cottage duplex though each has its own entries, patios and yards.
You’ll find the second cottage just as enchanting as its sister for it features a mint-colored tiled kitchen with vintage appliances and one-bedroom and one-bath.
The properties are located just steps from Coast Highway and a short stroll to the beach, shops and restaurants.
The next time you’re considering a San Diego trip or even a weekend getaway to one of our lovely Pacific Coast destinations, don’t forget about Encinitas – the small Pacific Coast Highway beach town with a heck of a lot going for it!